Burial Rites

Randy Baker

My Uncle Delroy had passed away back in Jamaica and, no matter how much I disliked funerals, I was duty bound to go home and pay my respects. As the years ticked by like the hands on a clock, there were fewer old folks left to die and fewer reasons to visit the country of my youth. Delroy was my father’s brother. Daddy had passed on several years ago. Uncle Delroy was the last of his generation on that side of my family, but Mama was still living and if I didn’t show up for the funeral, it would be a community scandal. 

The flight from Atlanta to Kingston was early the next morning, so I grabbed dinner on my way home from work and after putting it off as long as reasonably possible, I started shoving clothes into my suitcase. Only one suitcase. I wasn’t staying long.   

When I was a boy, I called someone like my adult self stush, someone who acted superior, or put on airs. It was true. Life as an American computer programmer was a far cry from being a barefoot boy in Bamboo Walk. I’d grown quite accustomed to my airconditioned life, replete with a 66” wall mounted TV and daily stops at Starbucks for a Cinnamon Dolce Latte. I wasn’t ashamed of it, although I tried my best to act like the same old Sinclair Jefferson on the odd occasion I found myself back in Jamaica. I tried, but I’m not sure I was fooling anyone. 

I packed and repacked at least three times before I simply gave up and zipped the suitcase closed. Picking out the right clothes was too much work. Of course, I had to guard against choosing a wardrobe that might cement my stushstatus. Then there was the fact that Jamaica is so hot. Living in the South in the United States involved a great deal of heat and humidity in the summer, rivalling anything I experienced in Jamaica. The thing is, though, the ridiculous heat doesn’t last all twelve months of the year in Atlanta and even when it is hot, I’m not standing around outside in it. I spend my time in my climate-controlled condo, or driving my Nissan Maxima with the A/C blasting, or sitting in my cubicle at work, which happens to be strategically located beneath an air vent. In Bamboo Walk, there’s no getting away from the stifling atmosphere. I sweat like a sow in heat all day. In the house, the open louvered windows and oscillating fans accomplish little more than swirling around the thick air. Air that feels like someone has wrapped you in a wet, warm blanket that you can’t pull away from your face. Going outside has its pros and cons. It feels less smothering in the fresh air, but it’s hotter out there with the sun boring through your skull. Growing up, I never thought much about it. Now when I go back, it’s all I can think about. Maybe it’s not all I think about. There are mosquitos.     

When I was a boy, I called someone like my adult self stush, someone who acted superior, or put on airs. It was true. Life as an American computer programmer was a far cry from being a barefoot boy in Bamboo Walk. I’d grown quite accustomed to my airconditioned life, replete with a 66” wall mounted TV and daily stops at Starbucks for a Cinnamon Dolce Latte.

After the packing and fretting over sweat and mosquitos, it was late, but I was too keyed up to sleep. I poured myself a glass of Appleton’s and pineapple juice and sank down into my favourite oversized chair. Appleton’s rum was my liquor of choice. You see, I hadn’t turned traitor, or spurned my heritage entirely. Being Jamaican from a distance, for me at least, seemed to work better than actually being in Jamaica. I hadn’t become stush on purpose, but such things happen when you go from living in the bush, planting yams and cassava to pulling down more than seventy grand a year in cold, hard American cash. In a way, it’s what everyone back home wanted me to do. All the studying, applying for scholarships and student visas, all of the scraping and saving by my parents, all the encouragement of people like Uncle Delroy and most everyone else in Bamboo Walk, was leading to this. They look at me with scepticism when I go home now and, God knows, if it weren’t for Mama I’m not sure I’d go back, but I didn’t get to this place in life on my own. There were a lot of cooks stirring that pot.

As I sat there nursing my rum and juice (and my second and third), my mind drifted to past funerals. I had been to a couple of funerals in the States, but none that had much impact. People from work who I barely knew, anyway, and that sort of thing. I didn’t enjoy those funerals, by any means. I don’t like funerals. Does anyone? Probably not, but I’ve never had a good grasp on how to deal with death. When we lost Daddy, that was too much for me. He had been my rock and, on a fundamental level, it had never occurred to me that he was going to die. Logically, I knew he would, but on a personal level, I didn’t see it coming. Going home for that one was some kind of tipping point. When I got the word, I couldn’t get there fast enough and then, once we had him in the ground, I was calling to see if I could get my flight time bumped up, by a few days, a few hours, however quickly American Airlines was willing to get me off that island. It didn’t work out, though.   

I stayed for the duration, swatting mosquitos, eating plate after plate of the callaloo and ackee old women were bringing by the house and wondering if anyone could tell, what with all the sweat dripping off my forehead, that I spent most of my time crying. The women weren’t paying me any mind, of course. Dressed in their best frocks and Sunday hats, they paraded around, offering their condolences when Mama came near, then kissing their teeth and muttering about how the house needed a sweeping. Apparently, losing a husband was no grounds for letting yourself go in such a way. It was all a poppy show with them, but one that is mostly a blur in my mind now.

When I was a boy, I was tough. There was not much crying back then. I spent all of my time outside, whether working, or playing. I studied hard, too, but not until they made me come inside. I knew every nook and cranny around Bamboo Walk. I had run, crawled and rolled down every gully-side, up and over every hill and splashed my way through every stream within walking distance of my house. The only time I cried in those days was when Daddy gave me a licking for doing something I shouldn’t have, although that wasn’t often. That was a good thing, because Daddy was a stout man with hands like iron. He was only average height, but he had a large presence. He never acted better than any man, but he always looked a man in the eye. Honest and decent.  Daddy did not spare the rod when it was called for, but he was no tyrant. Under his example, I was a better-behaved boy than many. I had ambition and, early on, I had goals. Daddy had given me that, because no one had given him those things when he was young. Back then, I might not have cried much, but becoming a soft, middle-class American had turned me into emotional mush. I’m pretty sure Daddy was proud of me when he died, despite the fact that I may have changed a little more than he’d hoped. That was a hard funeral. Uncle Delroy had tried to keep my spirits up, but other than share his bottle of white rum, what was he supposed to do?

Uncle Delroy and funerals. Sitting there, lost in the crevices of my oversized chair, I knew I needed to get to bed, but there was Uncle Delroy and funerals. His own funeral, which I would be at soon enough, but not only that one, or even Daddy’s. My mind was going way back to the first funeral I remember. More accurately, it wasn’t so much the funeral as it was the cemetery. One of the old men of the neighbourhood had died. Mr. Morris, it was. I had avoided the funeral, so I wasn’t there when they’d lowered his casket into the ground, but I had been there the day they dug his grave. Uncle Delroy was there, too. I laughed quietly to myself as I recalled it. I laughed again when I thought about how the people at my office would react if I told them what an event grave digging was where I grew up. It was a genuine laugh, even if there was a bitter edge to it. Bitter now, but not then. Grown-up me wonders for an instant who sends their thirteen-year-old boy to help dig a grave for the old man from down the road. Still-young me never gave it a second thought when Mr. Bailey came around to ask Daddy if he, or I, could go help with the digging.                 

Neither Daddy, nor Mr. Bailey, had gone to help dig. They had rounded up several of us boys, though. I remember David Bailey and another kid, Devon, being there. They were both a little younger than me, so I’m not sure how much serious digging they were expected to do. There were some other boys closer to my age, or a bit older, such as O’Neal and that half-Indian boy Neville, or Nigel, Something-or-Another. His whole family migrated to Canada years ago, but he was there the day of the grave digging. The little troop of us boys went up to Sullivan’s Hill, which is where the cemetery was located. There wasn’t a proper road to the cemetery and I have no idea who ever thought that was a good place to bury people. To get a casket up there, you had to walk the long way around, stumbling along a wide, rocky path to the top. The quicker route, the route we took that day, was to scale up the side of a steep embankment, holding on to exposed roots and saplings to pull ourselves to the top. Once the first couple of boys made it up, we passed the shovels and pick-axes to them, before dragging ourselves along, too.                        

In true Bamboo Walk fashion, the cemetery was on Sullivan’s Hill, but was named O’Sullivan’s Cemetery. How that came to be is beyond me and, frankly, when you’re still living in Bamboo Walk, such things don’t seem unusual to begin with, so you never bother asking. Our band of merry grave diggers walked the short distance through the bush toward the cemetery, pausing briefly to see if there were ripe jackfruits we might pilfer along the way. In all of Bamboo Walk, the only jackfruit tree was up there on Sullivan’s Hill. Given the trouble it took to get up there, if there was reason to be there, it was practically a requirement to go by and check for jackfruit. We had no luck that day, but there were no worries. It was mango season. We weren’t likely to starve.  

Back then, I might not have cried much, but becoming a soft, middle-class American had turned me into emotional mush. 

As we emerged from the bush into the semi-cleared area of the cemetery, we were surprised to see a small gathering of men present. Six, or seven, men were there and had already made some good progress digging a hole. More surprising, though, was that we only recognized one of the men — Uncle Delroy. We dropped our tools immediately. To our good fortune, these men seemed to be doing the job we had been sent to do. We couldn’t think of a reason to interfere. Instead, we went off and picked some mangoes, before resuming our spectator positions. It was hard to say how long they had been at it, but the grave was most of the way finished and most of the men were all of the way drunk.      

Uncle Delroy was two years older than Daddy, but he had never been a patriarchal figure in our family. Daddy was the responsible one. Daddy was the one who had managed to cobble together a decent life from his little plot of land and Daddy was the one everyone looked up to. Everyone including his older brother. Delroy wasn’t lazy, or a troublemaker. He simply lacked a sense of direction and was content to go with the flow more than other folks, which is saying something in a place where going with the flow was a common trait.

It wasn’t only their behaviour that set Daddy and Uncle Delroy apart. They had the same eyes and similar features, but that is where the resemblance ended. Where Daddy was average height and broad-shouldered, Delroy was tall and lanky. The small children would call out longy la la and giggle when he passed by on the road. Uncle Delroy never minded. Like my father, he had no malice toward anyone, but he was more light-hearted than Daddy. You rarely saw him without a grin on his face, where with Daddy you had to earn a smile.
                                                                                                                         
One other thing about Uncle Delroy is that he liked rum. He really liked rum. As a grown man, I came to appreciate a glass of Appleton’s, but Delroy liked the ‘whites’. That was the term people used for the white overproof rum made by companies like Wray & Nephew and, perhaps not surprisingly, it was considerably cheaper than a nice, dark, aged Appleton’s. The day of the grave digging, Uncle Delroy had certainly been into the whites.                        

I had been at O’Sullivan’s for a while before it finally registered with Uncle Delroy that I was there, or any of us boys, for that matter. He was leaned back against a headstone, passing a bottle of whites around with these strange men that I didn’t remember seeing before. They were cursing and swapping tales, most of which seemed so farfetched that they must have been true. When Uncle Delroy spied me across the way, he staggered onto his feet and straightened his back to full height. It seemed to me that he was trying to make himself look presentable and, dare I say, respectable, for his nephew. That was easier said than done, considering how much of Wray and his nephew he had imbibed by that point.                        

Delroy zig-zagged his way over to where I was sitting, on the ground, finishing off a mango. 

            “Bwoy,” he said. “When you get ‘ere?”     

            “Jus’ a while ago, Uncle,” I answered.                 

            “Your fada comin’?”             

            “I don’t think so.”                  

“Good”. Uncle Delroy kept opening his eyes extra wide, then squinting, trying his best to focus.                                     

At that point, Uncle Delroy went into a long winded and barely intelligible explanation of who all those other men were. Friends and acquaintances of Mr. Morris, more or less. Some old schoolmates of Uncle Delroy and Daddy, but a little older. It was all a bit vague and since Uncle Delroy couldn’t get through two sentences without stumbling over his words, or taking another swig from his bottle, we weren’t paying attention to the details, anyway. All of us boys were soaking it up purely for the entertainment value. I’d seen Uncle Delroy pretty far into the whites before, but he was in rare form that day. Wherever, or however, these other fellows knew Mr. Morris, or whatever their past association with Uncle Delroy, those days they likely knew each other from Lucy’s, the rum bar down the road from Bamboo Walk.

After deciding that he’d sufficiently explained himself, Uncle Delroy reeled around a few times, long arms flailing like tentacles, as he assessed the progress on the grave. One of the men down in the hole was doing more leaning than digging and that didn’t set well with Uncle Delroy. I doubt he really cared, but he had reached the stage of drunkenness in which a man develops a new sense of responsibility and decides that very moment, despite not being able to stand up straight, that it is incumbent upon him to set a good example for the younger generation. Most especially, for me. It may have occurred to him, as well, that he had reached the stage of drunkenness where I was unlikely to go home and not tell Daddy all about it. It was the kind of story that demanded to be told. There wasn’t much entertainment in Bamboo Walk and even television, had we owned one, was unlikely to top this.           

With his new-found sense of purpose, Uncle Delroy stomped over to the grave and bellowed for his comrade to get his lazy backside out of that hole. Shovels were for digging, not leaning. It was at that point that Uncle Delroy fell face forward, stiff as a board, down into the grave. That brought us all to our feet. Unbelievably, I hadn’t seen that coming. In unison, all of us boys surged forward to look in the hole. Also, unbelievably, Uncle Delroy had not passed out. Apparently, he had simply, spontaneously stopped standing upright. Wiping dirt from his face, he was using his other arm to push himself into a crouching position.           

“I’m alright. I’m alright,” he boomed. He wasn’t even close to being passed out, no matter how much he might have needed to do so. “Sinclair,” he said. “Pass me the whites.”                  

I wrestled a bottle away from one of the other men and tossed it down to Uncle Delroy. Having previously declared that shovels were for digging, once he was in close proximity to one, he had a change of heart. Uncle Delroy couldn’t even bring himself to look at the shovel. Instead, he leaned back against the side of the grave and unscrewed the cap on the rum bottle.  

            “It look six feet to me,” he said.     

To this day, I don’t know if that grave was six feet deep, or not, but I know there was no more digging after that point. The things I saw and heard from those men that day were the type of things that leave a lasting impression on a boy. I learned words that I knew instinctively I should not repeat in front of Mama and heard stories that I couldn’t have made up in my wildest imagination. Much of it, the details, have been lost in the mists of time, but the scene I will never forget. In the end, it took all of us boys to push and pull Uncle Delroy out of that grave. The men all staggered off in different directions and I wondered later if Uncle Delroy passed out and slept it off up there in the bush. He never said and I never asked. In fact, we never spoke of it again. Ever.           

Nowadays, the folks around Bamboo Walk don’t make a party out of grave digging. They hire a backhoe operator to come and get it over with. When we buried Daddy, I noticed that at some point, they had the path cleared and levelled a bit better than it used to be. Still not a proper road, but different than the old days. The digging of the grave, the trek up to the cemetery, were all easier and quicker now. Burying Daddy, there was no time to check the jackfruit tree and, at my age, I thought better of going off to look for mangoes. There was hardly time for anything, other than just getting it all over with. With the heat and mosquitos, it was just as well. It’s better that everything doesn’t take so long anymore, better that everything doesn’t have to be done the hard way.                

As I finally climbed into bed, double checking the alarm on my iPhone, I could almost see Uncle Delroy’s face, looking up from that hole. There’s no way that was six feet deep. I suspect Mr. Morris’ bones are somewhere between 4 and five feet below the surface, but no one was going to quibble with Uncle Delroy that day. He’d wanted to know if Daddy was coming. He wasn’t coming then and he wasn’t coming to the cemetery this time, either, I realized. For all I knew, it might end up being only Mama and me and, maybe, the guys from the backhoe service. That didn’t seem right, even if I didn’t care about seeing anyone else.             

Oh, well. It would all be over quick enough and, surely, it was better this way. Still, as I started drifting to sleep, it didn’t feel quite right, but I had an idea. I decided I was going to get a little bottle of whites and no matter how hot it was, or how many mosquitos, or how stush I’d let myself become, I was going to stay right there on Sullivan’s Hill after everyone else had gone their way. I would drink a toast to my Uncle Delroy and one to my father. I would drink one for Mr. Morris in his shallow grave and for all of those other men who are long gone and their way of life with them. I’d drink a toast and then I’d check the jackfruit tree on my way back to Mama’s where I would finish off that bottle of rum, because I have no intention of sleeping in the bush. 

Image source: Loop Jamaica

Randy Baker lives in Clarksville, Tennessee with his wife and daughter. Long before he knew that sociologists had coined the term “third culture kid”, he was simply known as a Jamerican. He writes fiction, poetry and dabbles with photography. His words and images have appeared in The Caribbean Writertongues of the oceanPOUI: Cave Hill Journal of Creative Writing and Barren Magazine, among others. He has published one chapbook, “Beyond the Horizon” and was the founding editor of St. Somewhere Journal

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